The Private Property and Personal Property Distinction

In beginner socialist circles, you see a strangely large amount of discussion about the difference between private property and personal property. This seems to be in significant part because certain kinds of people are partial to rhetoric like “abolish private property,” which they then need to walk back because that’s not actually what they want to do based on the normal way that those words are used.

As a hater of language, I mostly find this discourse annoying and think that it confuses people more than it enlightens people. For the purpose of communicating to beginners or opponents, you do need to be able to address the issue that this language attempts to address. But I think there is a much more straightforward way to do it.

The tangible world consists of three basic categories of things. There are non-produced assets such as land and natural resources. There are capital goods such as buildings and equipment that are used as inputs into production. And there are consumer goods such as food and clothing that go to satisfy the needs and wants of individuals.

The typical socialist view is that, in general, non-produced assets and capital goods should be collectively owned by the entire relevant population while consumer goods, once distributed, should be privately owned by the individual.

The category of consumer goods can be further broken down into two subcategories. There are non-durable consumer goods such as food, water and electricity, which are used up almost immediately. And there are durable consumer goods such as furniture and appliances, which are used up over longer periods of time.

When people talk about the ownership of consumer goods, they rarely talk about non-durable consumer goods for the obvious reason that they are quickly annihilated in the process of consumption. You can fight over whether a particular person should have been the one to receive a particular piece of cake, but, once eaten, it’d be absurd to talk about who should own it.

So the whole consumer goods discussion is really about durable consumer goods. Because they are consumed over time, they exist for much longer and so are conceivably subject to questions of how they should be governed. But, if you think about it clearly, the longevity of a consumer good shouldn’t really change anything about its governance. When a consumer good is distributed out, so too is the right to consume it, whether that consumption takes place in an instance like a bit of electricity, over 30 minutes like a meal, or over 18 months like a pair of shoes.

Thus the relevant question when it comes to consumer goods is not how they should be owned but rather how they should be distributed.

Once understood this way, it becomes fairly easy to explain the typical socialist position in ways that doesn’t require using words in idiosyncratic ways that then have to be defined over and over again in excruciating discussions. The general rule that socialists favor collective ownership of non-produced assets and capital goods and individual ownership of consumer goods is, like any rule, vulnerable to various edge cases and scenarios, but at least it does not suffer from a lack of lucidity.

There are of course some socialists who at least dabble in the idea that even durable consumer goods must be collectively owned. Carl Beijer lays out this argument over at his site. Beijer doesn’t really argue for the goodness of the position, but rather lines up some quotations that he thinks shows that Marx holds that position.

As a general matter, I am not one who thinks that “socialism” is the same thing as “what Marx wrote.” The tradition both predates and postdates Marx and, like most thinkers, Marx’s writing has all sorts of contradictions and errors in it. He’s not the prophet of socialism. He’s just another thinker in the tradition.

But even the quotes Beijer selects don’t really seem to support the idea that Marx thinks consumer durables would be subject to the same collective ownership as capital goods and non-produced assets.

For instance, Beijer quotes Marx as saying that:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population…

Does Marx really think that only 10 percent of the society possesses consumer durables? Do 90 percent of people roam around naked? The only way for this sentence to make sense is if “private property” really does mean non-produced assets and capital goods, as the ownership of those things really was (and still is) almost entirely held by the top 10 percent.

Regardless of where you come down on the question, I do think we should retire the current way of having this debate. Modern economic categories provide much more precision and allow for a much smoother debate.